The History of Babywearing and 'Modern' Slings
Ani Doherty carrying her son Bob Doherty on her back, photographed by Arthur James Iles, circa 1899. CREDIT ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY
Baby carriers have been around for thousands of years. Prior to the early 1900s, parents worldwide used a variety of long cloths, shawls, scarves and even bedsheets to snuggle up their babies and get the chores done.
Babywearing was not something 'special' and different as it is perceived today in the Western world, but just what they did to cope. And cope they did! Mothers had to work incredibly hard and didn't have time to stop and entertain baby, so baby just came along for the ride. It was common sense for mother to use a baby carrier to make her life a little easier.
Even today many traditional types of carrier are still used in developing countries, although this is usually restricted to indigenous communities where babywearing is totally normal, a necessity and way of life.
A Carrier for every country....
Each country/area of the world has a traditional baby carrier designed to meet their particular needs, i.e. hot/cold climate, type of work mothers do, cultural/traditional wearing positions.
- For instance Mexican people use the Rebozo, which is a square of woven cloth tied over one shoulder with baby usually on the back- sometimes called a Chal, depending on the length.
- Peruvians have a Manta which sits over both shoulders like a cape, and baby sits high on mother's back.
- Guatemalans use Parraje- similar to a Rebozo.
- European mothers used a mixture of pouches, wraps and short cloth carriers.
- Alaskan/Canadian people have the Amauti which is a very thick arctic jacket with a baby 'pocket' in the back, baby even fits under the over-sized hood!
- Papua New Guinea mothers use a Bilum- a net bag held at the forehead with baby hanging at the back (very strong necks!)
- Indonesian mothers use a Selendang which is a long ornate wrap.
- Aboriginal mothers used to keep their babies in carriers made of bark, similar to the cradleboards used by Native Americans but without the cloth covering.
- Asian mothers use a variety of carriers including Mei-tai /Hmong/ Bei(China), Onbuhimo (Japan), Podaegi (Korea) plus many use a 'carrier' of long straps which go under baby's armpits and thighs for back carries.
- Welsh mothers used to wear their babies in warm shawls, called 'Siol Fagu' (nursing shawl ).
- Ethiopian mothers use a blanket with top straps, similar to the Onbuhimo.
- African mothers use a 'Khanga' which is a short-ish piece of cloth tied around the torso, so baby sits low on the back.
- Maori women carried their babies in a cloth inside their cloaks, or in a flax Pikau (backpack).
The decline and rise of babywearing....
Sadly, in many of those countries babywearing has become less common because it is seen as something 'poor people do', and since only rich people can afford strollers, they *must* be desirable. (Forget that they are often totally impractical for the terrain etc) The more you have, the better off you apparently are.
Ironically, even though the women from the developing countries are trying to 'be more like the Americans' by NOT wearing their babies, babywearing is rapidly gaining in popularity with the exact people they are trying to emulate.
Interestingly, strollers were recently marketed in an African city but met with amusement and dismal failure to sell. The mothers wondered why on earth they would need such contraptions, and what was wrong with white people's babies that they would need to be in such isolation! (see full article here)
With the introduction of self styled 'baby trainers' in the middle of last century, and the ensuing movement to make babies independent and stop them being spoilt by too much love and attention, babywearing declined in western countries. Mothers stopped learning mothering from other mothers, and instead took the advice of men, deemed 'experts' because they were male, and doctors. Never mind that men and women have been shown to have totally different parenting styles and expectations (not wrong, just different).
Babies were put in strollers and cots, instructed not to be touched, and a whole range of inventions to avoid the 'bad habit' of carrying your baby. This move away from traditional mothering followed the move of birthing from home to hospitals, and seeing mums as 'just another silly mother', not to be trusted with the welfare of her own child. Sue Kedgley (1996) "Mum's the Word- the untold story of motherhood in NZ"
The State was determined to 'rescue' babies from their unknowlegeable families and encourage what they deemed proper medically lead care. It only took the first half of the 1900's to undo centuries of mothering knowledge and support, and it has taken another 30 years to even begin healing this rift.
Later research has quashed the 'spoilt baby' theory and we know now that lack of love and touch actually severely delays babies' development. They need and indeed crave bodily contact and movement in order to thrive. (We all know about the devastating situation of the Romanian orphans , left in cots without love and touch, and how they have missed out on so much potential development as a result. This sadly shows just how important it is.)
Rayner Garner, inventor of the ring sling
Until recently, baby slings were seen as 'only for hippies and native people', made of pieces of cloth and not easy to use.
But as Dr Maria Blois says in her book 'Babywearing' (2005), that changed in Hawaii in 1981.
That year a man called Rayner Garner invented a sling with two rings and padded edges, for his wife Sachi to wear their baby.
His design was so popular and useful that in 1985 Dr William Sears bought the rights and continued making and promoting slings.
The basic sling design still exists today in many variations, and many brands and types to choose from.
Over the shoulder baby holder marketed by Dr William Sears
Dr William Sears coined the term 'babywearing' which has gained in popularity (along with soft carriers/slings) since the 1980s.
He sees baby slings as an extension of the womb environment, bringing with itmany benefits for baby's development and parents' sanity!
The Babywearing community is incredibly lucky to have the ideological and practical support of this amazing Paediatrician and Father of 8, along with his wife Martha, a RN, Lactation Consultant and LLL Leader.
Babywearing is becoming increasingly recognised in the UnitedStates and Europe as an important parenting tool, and there is even a very highly sought after 'wrapping school', Die Tragenschule, with branches in Dresden and Europe. People in the medical and baby worlds are beginning to realise the value of babywearing as a means of bonding with baby and aiding development.
There is a wide variety of fashionable baby carriers and colours to choose from. The international variety of baby carriers in even the last 10 years is astonishing, although that variety is taking a while to filter through to New Zealand. We have a few brands of pouches, wraps and the occasional soft structured carrier, but we have a long way to go yet.
Realistically, there is a LOT of money to be made by marketing strollers, exersaucers, expensive frontpacks, rockers, highchairs, jumping seats, cots, etc.
But please wait a second before spending your hard-earned money. We get told we need all these things, when in reality baby doesn't care, all they want is to be with us.
There is not so much money to be made in good baby carriers. The proper quality baby carriers are mostly available over the internet, made by working mothers and/ or small companies who are experts in their field. (You will see vendors listed at the end of each carrier-type section, and in the Vendors List at the top).
Anything mass-produced and sold in shops is almost certainly not going to be ideal, so be very wary when shopping for a baby carrier, and read through each section of this site carefully, especially the Positioning page. You can also make your own slings and wraps from online patterns and instructions, so it needn't cost much at all, if anything.
Please know that Slingbabies does not make money from selling slings. We welcome and encourage handmade carriers at our meetings. Our emphasis is on safety and comfort for all.
New Zealand is still quite a mainstream society. Babywearing is not the norm, and its benefits relatively unknown by most, even baby 'expert' groups. Despite this, it is gaining in popularity as people search for ways to make their parenting easier, and find that babywearing helps.
Support networks for babywearing and natural aspects of parenting have begun to appear, mainly in the form of online communities such as The Baby Wearer.com, The Natural Parent forum and Mothering.com.
This generation of parents are gradually learning to trust their instincts again, and feel confident to follow their intuition. After all, babywearing is a thousand year tradition, and the last century is only a speed-bump to rediscovering the joy of parenting the way you feel is right for you.